Based on 1 Corinthians 9:16-23
Around the bottom of the dome at the United States Capital, there’s a grayscale mural.
It runs the entire circumference, telling the story of American history from the first settlers landing here up to the Wright Brothers. I, with my brother and grandfather, were lucky enough to have a guided tour of the capital from a staffer from Austin Scott’s office, who pointed out a peculiar fact about this mural.
She told us that the mural had three painters. The first passed away while painting, the third completed the painting, but the second was fired. Congress, when commissioning the mural, had specifically told the painters they could not sign their work. Why that is, I do not know, but the second painter had his own idea. He complied with the letter of the law, but violated its spirit. Inside a tree trunk, in the middle of the mural, he painted not his signature, but his face.
And for committing such an act, he was fired. Today, his face remains, in the mural, never painted over despite his flagrant violation of his contract.
His face bears witness to his life and his work.
I’ve always loved that phrase: bear witness.
I learned of it first while in seminary. To bear witness is simply to offer testimony to something you know. Consider monuments across Washington, DC. They bear witness to the lives that have touched our nation deeply and shaped who we are: Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Roosevelt, King. Consider the iconic buildings like the White House or the Capital, what President Trump called “living monuments” as those who work there continue to shape our lives and our self-understanding. They bear witness to the fundamental truths we hold dear, what Jefferson wrote as the self-evident truths, “that all men are created equal.”
Consider that, in this room, the cross bears witness to Jesus and his sacrifice. An ancient device of torture and execution, now a powerful symbol of freedom and life. Consider how the bread and cup on the table, simple and common elements, bear witness to the sustenance the life of Christ continues to provide for us. Our physical church, a building that, despite fire, has stood tall and proud since 1914, bears witness to our presence in this community and to the presence of Christ as central to all we do in Eastman and Dodge County.
And when I get up here to preach, when we speak to each other about what we hold dear, when we espouse our values, we bear witness to what we know: that Christ lives within us.
That’s what Paul’s doing in our scripture this morning: bearing witness. He’s bearing witness to the gospel, giving the Corinthian church instruction in how they can do the same. He tells them that, in order to share the gospel, for Jews, he became a Jew; for Gentiles, he became a Gentile; for the scribes, he became a lawgiver; for those who are weak, he became weak. He further says that he has become all things to all people so that he may save some.
He bears witness and he wants the Corinthian church to do the same. Become all things to all people; in other words go, and be like them, so that they may know the gospel.
But his means of bearing witness ought to strike us as odd. What kind of witnessing is this? Become like the people around you so that you can witness to them? In common practice, we’re taught rather to be as unlike the people around us as possible so that we can witness. We’re taught to proclaim the truth, no matter how different or off-putting it may be to others, because in proclaiming the truth, we set ourselves apart and hope that others will come to our side.
This, after all, is the basis of the culture wars; it’s the basis of evangelism as a modern church in America. We see moral failures in leadership and policy, we see more and more folks abandoning religion, we see fear trumping love, and we’re told, expected even, to stand up and be different from the pervasive culture. It’s in that way, so we’re told, it’s in being different, that we’ll spread the gospel, that we’ll bear witness.
So what are we to make of this “become all things to all people,” relativism-sounding, admonition? After all, if we go and act like something we’re not, isn’t that being fake? Paul was a Jew, a Pharisee even, and to go and be a Gentile to the gentiles? Paul was born free, but to go and be a slave to the slaves? Worse than relativism, isn’t that being fake?
What does it mean to bear witness?
Surely it doesn’t mean being fake. But that’s definitely how Paul sounds. So what Paul has to say here feels like nothing less than fake news.
My brother has decided that every time I get a degree, I should have a child. In August, I begin my doctorate, which will make my fourth degree. By his count, I’m two children behind. In my estimation, his declaration that I will have more children is nothing less than fake news.
That phrase, fake news, is relatively new, something coined during the last presidential election cycle, but fake news is a tale as old as time. Since some individuals first rose to power over others, they have used control over information as a way to secure that power. Consider how much dictatorships control their media, for example. But, even in a democracy like ours, different perspectives have their own narratives, their own stories they tell. Such is the primary difference in our political parties today: they tell two different stories that arise from two different perspectives on the same subject: the United States of America. Each party has its own story. What one side calls fake news, the other side calls truth because they have two different stories to tell.
We, like the parties, have a story to tell, too. Our lives tell the story of us, whether we mean for it to or not. The way we act, the way we spend our money, the way we spend our time, the way we carry ourselves, the attention, or lack thereof, we give others in conversation, the very aura about us that surrounds and pervades, all that speaks a word of who we are. We, without meaning to, without having to try, bear witness to what we really value and who we really are. We bear witness through the story our actions and attitudes tell.
And that’s just what Paul has to say to us in our scripture this morning: our lives bear witness through our actions and attitudes.
Paul, at first glance, sounds like fake news: go and be someone you’re not in the hopes of saving them. But that’s not what Paul means. We know from his letters that he’s not fake at all; in fact, sometimes he’s too real! He gets himself run out of synagogues all the time for preaching the gospel, he’s been run out of towns, people have tried to murder him, all because he’s shared the gospel. Paul’s not fake; if anything, Paul’s too real.
So Paul’s not admonishing the Corinthian church to be fake. No, he’s admonishing them to be in relationship with all people, no matter how different they may be.
What’s lost in translation in our scripture is this: Paul wants the people to go and be in relationship with all people so that, in being in relationship with even those who are very different from the members of the Corinthian church, their lives can bear witness to Christ.
In other words, to go and be a slave to the slaves is to befriend a slave, find out what life is like for them, and honestly share life together. To go and be a Gentile to the Gentiles is to befriend a Gentile, even if a Jew, to know what life is like for them, to enter into their world, and, in doing so, to bear witness to Christ.
To go and be hungry with the hungry is to go and find out what life is like for those who struggle with food insecurity, befriending them, walking the journey of life together in honest relationship. In doing so, we bear witness to Christ.
To go and be hispanic with hispanic populations is to go and live life with a hispanic family, finding out what life is like for them, befriending them, being in honest relationship, and in doing so, bearing witness to Christ.
To find out what life is like for a drug addict is not to become an addict ourselves, but to go and befriend an addict, living life with them, existing in honest relationship, and in doing so, bearing witness to Christ.
This is what it means to bear witness, what Paul means by being all things to all people: to reveal Christ through the loving, honest, relationships we have with others.
To go and bear witness is to befriend the odd man out at work. It’s to go and give of your time at the Refuge women’s shelter, whose powerful testimony at Joy Fellowship this past Thursday spoke of the power of Christ to release us from our bonds and set us free to a new life. It’s to be in honest, loving, and caring relationship with all those we know in our lives.
To bear witness, to go and be with others for others, is as simple as the ancient maxim of St. Francis of Assisi: “Preach the gospel to all the world and, if necessary, use words.” Our lives tell a story, the question before us this morning is what story our lives tell?
Evangelism, bearing witness, in the end isn’t about being different, standing up for values and the like. No, bearing witness is about being in relationship with others, no matter how different or alike they are to us. We tend to congregate with people who are like us; that’s human nature. But Christ calls us out into the world, to befriend the lost, the hurting, the downtrodden; the awkward, the mean, the spiteful, the irritable; the hurtful, the lonely, the weird. There’s nothing more powerful than being in honest, caring, relationship with each other for it’s there that we’re closest to experiencing the love of Christ on this earth.
That’s what Paul means in our scripture this morning. It’s not relativism, it’s not fake news, it’s a call to go and be in honest relationship with others so that they may see Christ in us. But, in order to see Christ in us, our actions and attitudes, how we carry ourselves, how we live our lives, must tell the story of Christ. We bear witness to something, whether we mean to or not. Paul calls on us to make sure that the story we’re telling through how our lives bear witness is the story of Christ in us.
For we are living monuments to Christ who is alive inside of us. How will the world know who Christ is? How will the world know the gospel message, the message of salvation throughout our lives: salvation from all that ails, salvation from our bad sides that we’d rather keep hidden, salvation from toxic relationships in our lives, salvation from maladies, salvation from our pasts? How will the world know the gospel is the good news that God saves us over and over again and that we, as the people of God, have that power available to us? The gospel, at its core, is this basic premise: that God is with us, saving us from the sin and evil that so easily entangles.
And so how will the world know that message? The world will know that message when our lives naturally bear witness to Christ.
So then the soul-searching question before us this morning is this: what story does your life tell?
If you were to ask folks who know you what story your life tells, what would they say? Would they say a story of irritability, of grumpiness, or of bitterness and resentment? Would they tell a story of being bossy, or a bully, always demanding that you have your way? Would they tell a story of selfishness or self-centeredness? Would they tell a story of being busy, of always running to and fro? Would they tell a story of anger, a temper that’s always just waiting for the right trigger to cause you to explode? Would they tell a story of manipulation, of hurting others, of being passive-aggressive?
Or would they say that your life tells the story, bears witness, to the love of Christ? That in you, they see peace? That in you, they see joy, despite circumstances? That in you, they find warmth that comes from knowing your true home? That in you, they experience safety and security?
Our lives tell a story, we bear witness to who we are on the inside, whether we mean to or not. The question, then, is how we make sure that our lives bear witness to Christ who lives within us? What does it take to carry ourselves in such a way, to have attitudes and actions that speak, to comport ourselves, to reveal Christ out into the world? What does it take to have the story of our lives bear witness to Christ?
It takes simply this: be in honest relationship with Christ.
Paul calls on us to be in honest relationship with people in our lives so that they may see Christ. That requires that we’re in honest relationship with Christ ourselves. Such relationship begins by not doing for God, but by simply seeking to draw close to Jesus. There’s no better way to do that than through an honest and fruitful prayer life. This is why, beginning on February 18, the church will be offering three different ways to engage in prayer. They’ll probably be different from things you’ve experienced in the past, but they’re designed to teach us, to lead us, toward drawing ourselves ever closer to Christ through an honest and robust prayer life.
For no amount of rote discipline can replace simply being in love with God. Prayer, an honest and fruitful prayer life, leads us there, to our spiritual home, where we know simply what it is to be loved by God. And we need not wait until February 18, either. In just a minute, we’ll be reminded in a powerful prayer of the relationship we have with Christ. Everything I say behind the table is a prayer. Let it be the prayer of your heart, too. Close your eyes, simply hear the words, and offer them as your prayer to God.
An honest prayer life draws us close to Christ, ensuring that our lives bear witness to him. If you’re unsure where to begin, come and talk with me, shoot me an email, invite me to breakfast or lunch. We can talk one on one about how to get started, about how to take the first step. As we approach the season of Lent, now is a great time to take the first step in falling more in love with Christ through prayer.
What story does your life tell?
All our lives tell a story. As we go about our lives, let us hold fast to the words of St. Francis of Assisi, who says best what it means to bear witness to Christ through our lives:
Preach the gospel to all the world and, if necessary, use words.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Amen.